The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges

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“This City” (I thought) “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars.”

This is the kind of thing I love to find: a BBC adaptation of a story by Jorge Luis Borges which I didn’t even know existed until this week. The Immortal was written in 1947 and published in the fourth collection of the writer’s fiction, El Aleph, in 1949. Anglophone readers will be more familiar with the story from Labyrinths, the most popular Borges collection, and the book I always recommend to those curious about his work. (And with the usual nagging proviso: avoid the Andrew Hurley translations if you can.)

Borges’ immortal is a Roman soldier during the reign of Diocletian whose life is recounted via a manuscript discovered in 1929 inside a volume of poetry. (The volume is Pope’s translation of The Iliad; Homer is never far away in Borges-land, especially in this story.) Disappointed by his military career, the soldier leaves his legion to go in search of the legendary City of the Immortals which is reputed to lie somewhere in the African desert; he finds the city, of course, and also (inevitably) receives more than he bargained for. Borges’ other fictions are seldom as traditionally fantastic as this, although the story’s philosophical musings are enough to set it apart from similar tales, as is the author’s habit of owning up to his recondite literary borrowings, like a magician revealing the secret of a trick at the end of a performance. Even so, The Immortal was generic enough to turn up in an American paperback collection in 1967, New Worlds of Fantasy edited by Terry Carr, along with stories by Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, JG Ballard and others. The Ballard story, The Lost Leonardo, is an uncharacteristic piece about another immortal character, Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, cursed to roam the world until the Second Coming of Christ. Ahasuerus was a popular character in the 19th century, whose legend and predicament was enough to sustain Eugène Sue for 1400 pages in a ten-volume historical saga, Le Juif Errant. Borges alludes to Ahasuerus via the name “Joseph Cartaphilus” although this is one obscure reference that he doesn’t explain for the reader. By contrast with the logorrhoeic Monsieur Sue, Borges requires a mere 15 pages to deal with 2000 years of history.

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Given the challenges of staging a complex historical drama on a TV budget Carlos Pasini’s film is little more than a 22-minute sketch of its source material, but Borges adaptations are scarce enough that there’s a thrill in seeing the material presented at all, as with the brief dramatisations in the Arena documentary, Borges and I. The Immortal was given a single broadcast on 20th November, 1970, as part of a now-forgotten BBC 2 arts programme, Review, where it was intended as an introduction to the author’s writing following the UK publication of The Book of Imaginary Beings. Mark Edwards plays the Roman soldier whose narration is taken verbatim from the story. Borges’ international reputation had reached a plateau of popularity at this time, after growing steadily during the 1960s. 1970 was also the year that Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance was released, a film that quotes verbally and visually Borges’ Personal Anthology while also featuring a photo of the man himself. A year later, Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius collection, The Nature of the Catastrophe, included the dedication “For Borges”; Jerry Cornelius is another immortal (or timeless) character, one of whose progenitors may be “Joseph Cartaphilus”. Pasini’s adaptation can’t compete with these heavyweights but as a taster of Borgesian prose and ideas it serves its purpose. The director has made it available for viewing here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Weekend links 612

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Cabinet of Curiosities (c. 1690s) by Domenico Remps.

• “…the human voice is an astonishing landscape”. Jeremy Allen on Desert Equations: Azax Attra (1986) by Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz, an album which is being reissued by Crammed Discs with bonus tracks and an inexplicably rearranged track list. Good as it is, their follow-up release from 1996, Majoun, is even better, and might be better known if it hadn’t been so thoroughly abandoned by Sony Classical.

• “On view through May 29, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800 showcases masterpieces done by 17 Italian women to make the case for a broader view of women’s participation in the Italian Renaissance.” Nora McGreevy reports.

• “We had a far more profound effect on society than we really understood, and some of us paid for that”: Jane Lapiner and David Simpson of the San Francisco Diggers talking to Jay Babcock in another installment of Jay’s verbal history of the hippie anarchists.

• “Close your eyes and you could almost imagine it’s the muffled screams of a ghost trapped in a bottle.” Daryl Worthington on 25 years of The Ballasted Orchestra by Stars Of The Lid.

• More Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Mike Stax talks with Michael Moorcock about music, science fiction, politics, and their intersections in the 1960s.

• “Cormac McCarthy to publish two new novels.” Oboy oboy.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Larry Gottheim Day.

Metal Machine Music For Airports

Marginalia Search

Music For Meditation I (1973) by Eberhard Schoener | Music For Evenings (1980) by Young Marble Giants | Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30 (Part I) (1996) by Stars Of The Lid

Weekend links 609

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Cover of Tom Veitch Magazine #1 (1970).

• RIP Tom Veitch, a writer with whom I almost created a comic-book series in the 1990s. Things didn’t work out for a variety of reasons but we had some good conversations. All the news notices focus on his writing for comics, a career which ranged from angry, political strips with Greg Irons to typical franchise fare. But he had short stories published in New Worlds magazine when it was at its peak under Michael Moorcock’s editorship, and in Quark, a short-lived paperback magazine edited by Samuel Delany & Marilyn Hacker. Veitch was also among the first 35 contributors to John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem service when it launched in 1968, part of a select group that included John Ashbery, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Related: An interview with Tom Veitch on William Burroughs at Reality Studio.

• “I won’t deny that I thought very much about a post punk influence on it. Everybody knows that I love post punk, but I didn’t want to copy anybody.” Robert Hampson talking to Jonathan Selzer about the return of Loop.

• “What Joyce and Eliot, Ulysses and The Waste Land, had in common was a showiness, an overt ambition as well as a magpie approach to literature as assemblage.” John Self on the year 1922, “literature’s year zero”.

• At Spoon & Tamago: All of Japan’s 47 prefectures captured in expressive typography.

• At Public Domain Review: Composition (1905) by Arthur Wesley Dow, a book for art students influenced by the example of Japanese prints.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine on the unending attempts to solve The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

• Mixes of the week: Fact Mix 846 by Ehua, and Soylent Green – No Escape by The Ephemeral Man.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Matthew Suss presents…Joseph Cornell Day.

• At Bandcamp: A guide to Alvin Lucier.

Loop The Loop (1980) by Young Marble Giants | Q-Loop (1995) by Basic Channel | Loop-Loop (1996) by Michael Rother

Weekend links 597

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Untitled art by Toshio Okazaki from JCA Annual 5, 1984.

• “Yeah, when I first started writing it, nobody knew what to call it at all. I mean, the publishers didn’t know what to call it. They thought that Tolkien was (writing about) a post-apocalyptic nuclear world. That’s the only way they could perceive an alternate world, in other words. And it was the same with Mervyn Peake… they’re all interpreted that way. The idea of putting ‘fantasy’ on a book meant usually meant that it was a children’s book. And if you put fantasy as the genre, they usually put ‘SF’ larger than ‘fantasy’ to show that it was what it was.” Michael Moorcock (again) talking to Derek Garcia about fiction, games, and (of course) Elric.

• “Non-payment, low payment, late payment and promises of jam tomorrow, or at some unspecified future date, bedevil the freelance life as they did five centuries ago.” Indeed. Boyd Tonkin on Albrecht Dürer, patron saint of stroppy freelancers.

• “All at once, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is tender, outrageous and daft.” Patrick Clarke compiles an oral history of Soft Cell’s debut album.

Yeah, it was kind of a media hype. In January [1967], the media said, [breathless] ‘Oh my god, San Francisco is the place to be. Come to San Francisco, wear flowers in your hair.’ So we had a meeting of the people in the Haight-Ashbury about how we were going to deal with so many people coming. The Diggers decided to kind of make it a university of the streets, an alternative anarchist culture.

We knew that all these people were coming to San Francisco, and we knew they weren’t going to stay. And we thought, well, the best thing we could do would be to kind of educate them about the kinds of things that are possible in society, and then let them go back to where they’re from, and they would carry these ideas. And that is what happened. We were quite successful in that.

Judy Goldhaft of the San Francisco Diggers talking to Jay Babcock for another installment of Jay’s verbal history of the hippie anarchists

• “What ‘impossible’ meant to Richard Feynman; what I learned when I challenged the legendary physicist,” by Paul J. Steinhardt.

• At Strange Flowers: part one of James Conway’s essential end-of-year shopping list, Secret Satan.

• Mixes of the week: Part II and Part III of the three-part At The Outer Marker series by David Colohan.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Olivia Duval presents…Suave: A History of Les Disques du Crépuscule.

Mystery and Truth of the Cthulhu Myth, a Japanese guide to the Cthulhu Mythos.

• Intimacy, Loss and Hope: Inside Florian Hetz’s beautiful 2020 photo diary.

• New music: The Tower (The City) by Vanessa Rossetto/Lionel Marchetti.

Nite Jewel’s favourite albums.

• RIP Stephen Sondheim.

Nothing Is Impossible (1974) by The Interns | Mission Impossible Theme (1981) by Ippu-Do | Impossible Guitar (1982) by Phil Manzanera

The Dreaming City by Michael Moorcock

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Cover art by James Cawthorn. Chaos pin not included.

More sword and sorcery. Last month I was asked to design a reprinting of the very first Elric story by Michael Moorcock, a standalone publication from Jayde Design intended to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Moorcock’s most popular character. The Dreaming City was published in issue 47 of Science Fantasy magazine in June 1961, following a request from the editor, John Carnell, for Moorcock to write a new series of fantasy stories. Over the next three years Science Fantasy published all ten of the novellas that established Elric’s character and his world, ending with Doomed Lord’s Passing in April 1964, the entry which saw Moorcock destroy his creation in a Boschian apocalyptic finale.

The Dreaming City: A Sixtieth Anniversary Edition is a compound facsimile of these publications. The interior design follows the template of the magazine interiors while the front cover is based on one of the later numbers which ran the fifth Elric story, The Flame Bringers, with a cover illustration by James Cawthorn. That illustration may have been attached to a different story but it actually depicts a scene from the end of The Dreaming City when Elric is leaving Imrryr in burning ruins after the place has been sacked by the raiding party he led there. It’s also a much better illustration than the one by Brian Lewis that appeared on the cover of the June 1961 issue. In addition to recreating the cover we’ve also restored the drawing, which in its printed form was slightly cropped at one side, with the complete version taken from Cawthorn’s original. Jim Cawthorn was closely involved with the creation of Elric, and even co-wrote Kings in Darkness, another of the stories in the Science Fantasy sequence. Inside the new edition there are four further illustrations which Cawthorn produced for a German collection of Elric stories published by Heyne in 1979.

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One of James Cawthorn’s interior illustrations.

This small publication will only be of interest to collectors but it was a good thing to be involved with. In the past I’ve designed an Elric-themed album cover for Hawkwind, and last year designed The Stormbringer Sessions, a very limited publication of Jim Cawthorn’s sketched outline for his unfinished Elric graphic novel. The Dreaming City is the first Elric design of mine that features Moorcock’s own text. For an opening shot in what would become a saga spanning several decades and a variety of media The Dreaming City is a remarkably confident piece of work, even more so when you consider that the author was only 21 at the time. Elric begins and ends the story as an outsider, exiled and alone, and with his existence bound to his cursed sword, Stormbringer. Subsequent novels and stories would fill in the history before pitching Elric into the multiverse along with many of Moorcock’s other characters. But this is where it all begins, with six Sea Lords waiting in a tavern wondering whether the albino prince will turn up at all.

The Dreaming City: A Sixtieth Anniversary Edition is available here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Stormbringer Sessions by James Cawthorn
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve
Moorcock: Faith, Hope and Anxiety
Elric 1: Le trône de rubis
The Sonic Assassins
Jim Cawthorn, 1929–2008